The Triumph of the City

The High Renaissance




(Renaissance  Art Map)





Michelangelo (Buonarroti)

(b Caprese, ?6 March 1475; d Rome, 18 Feb 1564).

Italian sculptor, painter, draughtsman and architect. The elaborate exequies held in Florence after Michelangelo’s death celebrated him as the greatest practitioner of the three visual arts of sculpture, painting and architecture and as a respected poet. He is a central figure in the history of art: one of the chief creators of the Roman High Renaissance, and the supreme representative of the Florentine valuation of disegno. As a poet and a student of anatomy, he is often cited as an example of the ‘universal genius’ supposedly typical of the period. His professional career lasted over 70 years, during which he participated in, and often stimulated, great stylistic changes. The characteristic most closely associated with him is terribilita, a term indicative of heroic and awe-inspiring grandeur. Reproductions of the Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (Rome, Vatican) or the Moses from the tomb of Julius II (Rome, S Pietro in Vincoli) have broadcast an image of his art as one almost exclusively expressive of superhuman power. The man himself has been assimilated to this image and represented as the archetype of the brooding, irascible, lonely and tragic figure of the artist. This popular view is drastically oversimplified, except in one respect: the power and originality of his art have guaranteed his prominence as a historical figure for over 400 years since his death, even among those who have not liked the example he gave. For such different artists as Gianlorenzo Bernini, Eugène Delacroix and Henry Moore, he provided a touchstone of integrity and aesthetic value. Although his reputation as a poet has not been so high, his poetry has been praised by such diverse figures as William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Eugenio Montale (1896–1981).



vault of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Michelangelo painted the frescos for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (built by Pope Sixtus IV) between May 1508 and October 1512. They were commissioned by Pope Julius II. who wished to compensate Michelangelo for a previously abandoned project. The Creation of Adam is one of nine central panels in the highest part of the vault. Alternately small and large, these panels depict the main stories from the book of Genesis. This large fresco measures 4.8 by 2.3 metres. It is the fourth in the series but was among the last to be completed. The scene illustrates God suffusing Adam, his new creation, with the gift of life. He extends His forefinger to touch that ol Adam. The "paternal right hand" (papal hymn Veni Creator Spiritus) of God transfers immense power to the waking "first man". God's index finger points with authority and definition, while Adam, who is not yet hilly alive, can barely lift his hand. The might of God is confirmed in his stern gaze, fixed on Adam, who in contrast looks awe-struck and submissive.




The composition is based on a rectangular layout, which can he roughly divided into two squares. The right-hand side is dedicated to the Creator, and the left to Adam. The name Adam is derived from the Hebrew word for "ground", and the figure rests on a stable, triangular area of barren earth. God, in the other section, is borne aloft by angels, and surrounded by dramatic swirls of fine cloth. The empty sky in the centre of the picture is important, as it provides the background to the joining of the two hands, the point of communication and the focal point of the painting. It emphasizes the division between the infinite power and divinity of God and the finite world of man, his creation.


There is a symmetry and a connection between the two figures that is fundamental to the work. This can be shown by long, gently curved lines joining the figures. The main line follows the curve of the arms, passes through the bauds, and joins the shoulders. The eyes of God gaze directly into those of Adam, and the bodies and limbs of the two figures are also linked along parallel planes. The viewer's eye is directed from right to left and back again, in a pendulum-like arc, which creates subtle associations and references between the two figures in what is almost an illusion of curved space. The Creation and the Last Judgment are the two situations in which the mystery of contact between humankind and Creator can be contemplated. Here, the artist has approached the enigma of this subject and given it form.




Michelangelo was clearly intent on adhering strictly to the story in Genesis, to which the nine central panels of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel are dedicated: "So Cod created man in his image, in the image of God he created them " (Gen. 1:27). Michelangelo's representation of the Creation of Adam perfectly encapsulates these words. The physical forms of the two figures are the same, their strong, well-muscled physiques precisely depicted- Michelangelo made numerous life studies for this scene- with a careful use of light and shade. The dolled lines showing the centre of gravity of the bodies flow in the same direction, as do the lines along the lower edges of the bodies. Positioned in this way, the divine form is convex and the human concave, almost as if the imprint of God is being transferred to man.




Much has been said about the contact that is about to lake place between the two index fingers. There is almost a spark between them, as if a transmission of energy is taking place. The divine breath of life is translated into physical contact, or, more exactly, virtual contact. Between the two fingers lies the love of the Father for his creation, and, simultaneously, the unbridgeable gap between the divine and the human. The impression of a current flowing through the arms is produced by the undulating line connecting the bodies through the arms. The power and life that flow from Cod's finger recall the words of a papal hymn: "Thou... Finger of the paternal right band... Pour thy love into our hearts. Strengthen us infirm of body...." Michelangelo's pupil Ascanio Condivi said: "Where Cod is seen with his arm and band extended, He is almost giving Adam the rules of what he should or should not do."







Michelangelo has endowed Adam with a perfect anatomical form, one that epitomizes the glory of the Renaissance figure. The muscular, rigorous body encapsulates bulb strength and elegance. In accordance with Genesis, Michelangelo has directly modelled the figure of Adam on that of God: his hands and legs mirror those of the father. Chiaroscuro is very important in this painting, and the quality of the modelling reaches heights of great excellence. This is in spite of the limitations of the medium -shading and, above all, glazing were particularly difficult to achieve in fresco work. Recent restoration of the chapel has revealed that the colours used were strong, varied, and surprisingly bright. Vasari described Michelangelo as the climax of a gradual evolution since Giotto.







Michelangelo's decoration of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512 involved a wide variety of images, the sources and interpretation of which are still debated. Scenes from Genesis, the Old Testament prophets and sibyls (female seers), and the ancestors of Christ record the Creation of mankind and the road to salvation initiated by the Jewish people and completed in Christ's Incarnation. There are also clear allusions to the role of the Church and the Papacy at a time of great difficulties for the ruling pope. Michelangelo's composition uses classical architectural elements to frame episodes and support the figures. Particularly imposing and colourful are the sibyls and the prophets. As Vasari wrote: "These figures...are shown in varied attitudes, wearing a variety of vestments
and beautiful draperies; they are all executed with marvellous judgment, and invention, and they appear truly inspired to whoever studies their attitudes and expressions." These attributes of Renaissance painting - variety, invention, and expressiveness - led to the creation of powerful characters that would have an impact on all subsequent art.




The Delphic Sibyl



Slave "Crossed-Leg"
Captive, 1530-34


In 1505, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome to work on his tomb, an ambitious scheme for a magnificent monument to be placed in the old St Peter's. Over time, the plans for the project were repeatedly modified, and many of the sculptures for the work were never completed: the artist himself spoke of ''the tragedy of the tomb".
Michelangelo's Slaves, which were to be placed under a group of Victories, were completed in two stages; the first in 1512 to 1513 (presently in the Louvre, Paris) and the second in about 1532 (in the Accademia in Florence). These figures, which emerge out of the stone as if they are trying to escape from it, represent Michelangelo's expression of ideal form recovered by "freeing" the figures from the marble. The unfinished state of these figures has led to many symbolic meanings being given to their dramatic forms. They were subsequently acquired by Duke Cosimo I, who had them installed in a grotto in the Boboli Gardens.


"And the Lord God Called unto Adam,

and Said unto Him, Where Art Thou?"

Michelangelo recreates man



And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.... And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Genesis (1:26-27,2:7); heading: Genesis (3:9)


Michelangelo was born in Florence in 1475. As a boy of thirteen he was apprenticed to the workshop of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449—1494). There his talent was discovered and furthered by Lorenzo de' Medici, a great lover and patron of the arts. As a young man Michelangelo was allowed to live in the Medici palace as a guest, where he could study the ancient statues in the garden and was instructed by the ruler, Lorenzo, himself. However, by the time he reached the age of eighteen, that was not enough for Michelangelo Buonarroti. How was a sculptor to represent a human body in motion without knowing how the muscles functioned under the skin? He wished to study anatomy, but he needed corpses to do so. He knew he would not be admitted into a charnel house, as it went against his contemporaries' sense of propriety and moral principles. The popular American novelist Irving Stone — whose book about Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), was a bestseller — allowed chance to drop a key into his hero's hands: the key to the hospital of Santo Spirito. Eagerly, yet terrified of being caught, he set to work at night. By the flickering light of a candle, he carefully dissected corpses to study the way muscles were formed and how they worked, how the spinal column was arranged and where the organs were located. Without empirical observation and active study, no matter how he may have gone about it, Michelangelo would never have become the model that he has been for subsequent generations of artists. Nor would he have been revered in his own lifetime as a sculptor, a painter, a writer of profoundly moving sonnets and a thinker in the Platonic mould. To him the idea, the conception of a work of art — and this was especially true of sculpture — was latent in the material, waiting to be recognised by the artist and wrested from it in the creative process.
Michelangelo's Creation of Adam is surely one of the most sublime portrayals of man ever achieved. On 10 May 1508 Michelangelo began to work on this fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Initially he had misgivings about accepting the commission because he viewed himself primarily as a sculptor. He suffered agonies while painting the Sistine ceiling, as his contemporary, Giorgio Vasan, sympathetically relates: "From keeping his head bent back for months on end to paint the vaulted ceiling, he ruined his eyes so that he was no longer able to read even a letter and could not look at any object without holding it up above his head." But that was not all. Michelangelo, then thirty-five years old, had to placate his sixty-seven-year-old patron, Pope Julius II, who "was of an impatient, choleric temperament and could not wait until the work was finished". By 31 October 1512, Julius II was finally able to marvel at the completed fresco, with its over 300 figures.

K. Reichold, B. Graf




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